You may have encountered a similar situation: you visit your childhood home for the holidays and suddenly you feel intense emotions. However, these emotions aren't just brain-based. You may feel tense, anxious, shaky, uncomfortable, and unsafe in your body as well. This is because trauma is not just something that your brain stores, it's something that your body carries too.
Our brains are intelligent and the best survival technique we have. It has carried our species throughout many years of evolution. Unfortunately, our brain has yet to develop to understand real danger versus perceived danger. Because of this, when a trigger is faced our brain cannot distinguish that this danger is from the past.
Somatic Trauma Responses
SAMSHA (2014) identifies physical responses to trauma both in the immediate as well as the long-term effects that may happen well after a trauma has occurred. Here are some examples they name:
Immediate Physical Reactions
Nausea and/or gastrointestinal distress
Sweating or shivering
Muscle tremors or uncontrollable shaking
Elevated heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure
Extreme fatigue or exhaustion
Greater startle responses
Delayed Physical Reactions
Sleep disturbances, nightmares
Somatization (e.g., increased focus on and worry about body aches and pains)
Appetite and digestive changes
Lowered resistance to colds and infection
Elevated cortisol levels
Long-term health effects including heart, liver, autoimmune, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
The consequences of trauma are even more evident with complex trauma and complex PTSD.
Why Do Our Brain's Do This?
The brain is an organ that is still widely misunderstood. However, advances in technology has helped us to discover the link between emotion, thought, and behaviors. Coalition Recovery (n.d.) describes the process as such:
"Explicit memory is associated with recollecting our previous experiences. This type of memory contrasts with implicit memories, which are ones in which we obtain subconsciously; like tying your shoes without thinking about it. Trauma can cause our memory processing system to malfunction: the explicit memory system fails, so the traumatic memory isn’t logged and stored properly."
It's been studied that undergoing chronic stress can not only effect physical health, but also the structure of the brain. PTSD and trauma is considered a type of chronic stress that arises from past experiences. Coalition Recovery (n.d.) provides an organized summary of how our brain changes when experiencing PTSD:
"The three parts of the brain in charge of handling stress change when people experience PTSD:
The hippocampus shrinks – The area focused on emotion and memory
The amygdala function increases – The area associated with free-thought and creativity
The prefrontal (anterior cingulate) activity decreases – The area associated with more complex functions like planning and self-development
These unaddressed traumatic experiences eventually linger, and like a roadblock, break up the normal flow of our body, breaking down our physical and psychological processes. Early evidence of cellular memory reveals that it’s not simply our brain, but our body’s cells that might hold an imprint of past traumatic events."
Making Sense of This Information
As stated in my other articles, neuroplasticity is our greatest ally when healing from trauma. It allows us to change the repeated patterns and responses that we have developed in our lifetime. It's important to understand that healing is not one size fits all. The way you may embody your authentic self after trauma is most likely very different from others. Focus individually on what your goals, values, and struggles are.
To help regulate emotions and arousal, a bottom-up approach might be needed as well. This approach starts with less cognitive elements of the self like body and physical sensations. Body and movement-oriented therapies are categorized as physical activity that helps increase our body awareness. Bottom-up approaches in addition to top-down approaches (like talk therapy) can be the most effective way of healing from trauma - body and mind.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
Coalition Recovery (n.d.) How Unprocessed Trauma Is Stored In The Body. Retrieved from https://www.coalitionrecovery.com/rehab-blog/how-unprocessed-trauma-is-stored-in-the-body/